What it's like to volunteer at the Pacific Primate Sanctuary
November 03, 2005
I'm standing in a long, well-lit hall, flanked by rows of roomy enclosures. A cool breeze can be felt through the open sides of the outer sections… and the chirps, squeaks, whines and cries of more than 40 New World monkeys can be heard.
This is the Pacific Primate Sanctuary—or, as their official website states, "A non-profit refuge providing a safe haven for threatened, endangered, and distressed monkeys." Located in the remote, forested acres of Haiku, the Sanctuary has been housing such creatures in their current enclosures since 2000. Here, many abused "New World" monkeys—species inhabiting Central and South America—have been given a second chance at life. For many of them, it's a chance that they would never otherwise have had.
I volunteered here on the weekends, so I know the place pretty well. Walking down the hallway, I pause by the second enclosure on the left. It's home to four White Tufted-Ear Marmosets: Stevie Wonder, his mate Mariette and their two twins. Stevie peers around with foggy blue eyes and moves slowly and deliberately; he is blind.
If not for his home at the Sanctuary, it's conceivable he would have little or no chance at survival. But here he has been gently introduced to his outside enclosure, where he can experience the fresh air and vegetation that would normally be available to him in a natural environment. Inside, he can traverse branches and ropes.
An endangered Cotton-Top Tamarin named Sparky, who is in a single-level portable enclosure placed outside some fellow Cotton-Tops, catches my attention further on. Sparky is partially paralyzed from the waist down, so it's pretty much impossible for him to move about quickly or leap from branch to branch as so many others of his species do.
But here, he is simply lovingly cared for by volunteers who try to bring him the best, most comfortable existence possible. Sparky's enclosure is lined with soft blankets and stuffed animals, which he loves to hide beneath with only his tail or eyes peeking out.
Most of the monkeys are strong and healthy, making bounding leaps across their enclosures. Even those who are not in the best of condition—missing fingers, toes, or tails—are hardly discernible from the rest. Several enclosures are home to fluffy, wide-eyed infants who cling to a parent or elder sibling's back.
Down the road outside is the home of the White-Faced Capuchin monkeys. They are in a patch of dense forest, in two separate enclosures with concrete floors and tin roofs. I try to be as cautious and gentle as possible; when content, these black-and-cream creatures murmur and chirp softly, taking the offered food from your palm.
But when aggravated they can grab your wrist and pull quite hard, using their hands, feet, or tails. They will also bark at one another, scream, bang on their tin roofs as if they were cymbals and occasionally throw a peanut or two.
An encounter like this reminds me of why I am here—to serve them. Not for myself, not for anybody else, but solely for the benefit of the monkeys. When they do not treat me "nicely," I cannot simply walk away—rather, I keep trying, keep working to gain their trust.
They are intelligent. They can sense unease or tension in the air, as if it were a smell. This serves to give me a true sense of humility and respect for these creatures.
Back up the meandering road toward the main Sanctuary building, I notice a sort of empty railroad-track-like foundation is being laid for a new pathway. I continue along, following the trail alongside the 10 enclosures Here the concrete foundations have recently been poured for new Capuchin enclosures. The enclosures are out in the open air with a full view of the lush tropical forests around them.
This new location already provides a great improvement from the muddy, mosquito-infested jungle in which they currently reside. The new enclosure also allows for a closer interrelationship between the two groups, facilitating a back-and-forth journey between the two main enclosures. The new enclosures will provide vegetation, successfully emulating their natural environment and giving them a closer experience to a typical life in the wild.
Back inside the Sanctuary, I look over the volunteer schedule for the rest of the month. There is a shift that needs covering every morning and every afternoon, a total of about 60 shifts per month. Dedicated volunteers cover these shifts.
They're drawn and held here for the same reason as me: a concern for the creatures' plight, a determined willingness to help combat their mistreatment and a desire to give back to them something of what we humans have taken.
Of course, we also just love the monkeys.
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